Friday, March 06, 2009

Staying Cool

I am the kind of parent that struggles to find the right answers even in the best of circumstances. My omissions are too numerous to be counted - lessons learned in childhood are long forgotten or worse misremembered, I am not particularly patient and incapable of remaining dispassionate when it is most required. Just that list in itself should make mothering a formidable challenge except that I am blessed with an easy-going, even-keeled, low-maintenance child.

But there are challenges even with one such as J. I have come to realize that I have a significant credibility gap with her when it comes to social and cultural challenges resulting from being desi in a predominantly white, small-town (and closed-mind if I may add) community. Where I live, racism is a part of everyday life but expressed in ever so subtle ways - you get used to it after a while but it never completely ceases to bother you. J does not view me as a viable role-model because I have not walked in her shoes being a FOB. Often she feels her challenges are for her alone to deal with - that I will simply not know the answers. Unfortunately, she is probably right in her assessment of my abilities.

I had no idea what the inside of an elementary school in suburban America looked like until J started kindergarten. Similarly, I had no idea what goes on in the cafeteria, during PE or recess or even at a talent show. I learn what I can from J but it is a glowing testament of my lack of qualification to coach her on how deal with her peers. Reading to educate myself is no substitute for having first-hand experience. Learned wisdom tends to sound contrived and does not make the necessary impact. So I find myself working in reactive mode, never being able to anticipate what may come J's way like someone who was born and raised here can. This can be distressing for both of us.

I grew up having a strong female role model in my mother and that has always stood me in good stead. J is likely not going to find her role model in me. No matter what obstacles I have overcome in life, it will never have been Dan saying "Eew what's that disgusting thing you're eating for lunch" or her best friend Amanda commenting "You breath stinks". It will not be wondering if being petite, brown-skinned and dark-haired precludes being beautiful because every other girl you know is light-skinned and blond.

She has to make those journeys alone, often feel awkward and rejected, come back home and cry her heart out to me knowing that I can offer nothing more tangible than love and comfort. She learns and grows alone through these experiences. I am an empathetic bystander at best. I want for J to find a strong, reassuring role model sooner than later in life because I don't want her to flounder along without an anchor- I try to fill the gap in the interim.

She struggles to find balance between her natural gravitation towards the Indian world and her need to blend into the American one so she does not experience discomfort in what is a large part of her life. This is the story of most first generation immigrants. Given my single-parent status, our forays into the local desi society has been far from positive. It always helps to a firm toehold in one culture as you try to explore the other because you know you have a safe place to return to when you like. J lacks that primary social context. In that, her situation is somewhat unlike that of most first generation desis.

To complicate matters, J wants to feed her own interests which are rarely shared by her peers and yet longs to be well-liked by those with whom she very shares little common ground. She is too young to understand that she will have to give up a few things and she is younger still to be able to choose what to keep and what to let go.

There is a certain choppiness about her movements back and forth between the two worlds which cause a lot of the friction and frustration.Being a FOB, there is only so much I know to do as far as helping her navigate what is foreign to my own growing up experience. I for my part, would love for her to be able to transcend the mores of both cultural identities and define one of her own but I fear that is too much to ask or expect of a seven year old.

In time, J will have learned her way around the world - she has come a long way since the early kindergarten days. I doubt if I have been any help at all except letting her know that she had nothing and nobody to fear as long as she has been on the side of truth. If someone had made a comment that hurt or humiliated her, she was well within her rights to return the favor but with far greater finesse for lasting impact. If doing that got her into trouble, I would be totally cool with it.

Now, being cool with stuff is a concept I have recently wrapped my arms around thanks to J. While I am far from a perfect mom, hopefully I will have the sense to be and remain cool even when my first instinct is to get agitated and completely lose it.


Vikas Gupta said...

I always say to myself that I'll spend at least five years in the US. But I see that the grass is always greener on the other side of the globe ( I guess I've used this saying elsewhere too on this blog).

Dan saying "Eew what's that disgusting thing you're eating for lunch" or her best friend Amanda commenting "You breath stinks"

I don't know what to say. I would have probably cried with J if I were you!

All this may prove to be a blessing in disguise and J may grow to become a more wise individual. Amen!

P.S.: wish I had something more than mere solace to offer! BTW, you are not "far from a perfect mom." You are a 'great' mom. Nobody is prefect (also perfect would be boring, in all probability). "There are only two kinds of perfect people, the dead and the unborn!"

Amodini said...

None of us will know all the answers - so don't fret. J will be fine, and you don't have to be the all-knowing, been-there-done-that Mom. I can understand that it is hard for J, it is hard for my kids too, but I do think that what will matter in the end, will be having a parent who knows who she is, and stands by it (which you appear to be).
It is indeed a pity that the desi culture is so 2-parent minded, and I do wish that desi religous/community institutions were more open-minded.

ggop said...

I've had friends who grew up in small town America who had similar experiences. One painful slur hurled at a friend who grew up in rural New York was "sand nigger" during the first Gulf War lumping them with Arabs.

I know J will come out stronger from all this and yes, more power to her if she can put people back in their place!

My child is of mixed ethnicity and living in Northern California is a blessing with such diversity.

Poonam said...

I am pained to hear about the racial abuse a child has to grow up with. Your assurance and faith that J will find way was v heartening to me.

I wish you may best come to you and J.

Heartcrossings said...

Vikas - I wish for J to grow up to be wise :)

Amodini - When you are a desi and single-parent you are pretty much a community cast-off. It does not matter to the parent but the child does suffer. It would have helped J to be part of a larger community specially so far away from home. I hope she comes out stronger from the experience and is able to stand confident of her identity.

ggop - Yes, you are lucky to live somewhere diversity is a lot more common and appreciated. I can only teach J to defend herself and do so very tastefully.Calling someone a 'sand-nigger' while horrible is also incredibly declasse. Tells you a LOT about the family and culture of the kid.

Poonam - Thank you for your good wishes for J and I :)